Sep 202011

Arnold, Rebecca. Fashion: A Very Short Introduction. Cambridge: Oxford UP, 2009.

Figure 1. Book cover of “Fashion: A Very Short Introduction”

The title of this book is in no way misleading. It is, in fact, a very short introduction to the history of fashion. Arnold takes the reader on a helicopter ride through fashion’s past, present, and future, hovering far above specific instances to locate very broad patterns. Some of these include the rise of the designer, the intersections between art and fashion, the development of the fashion industry, the impact of globalization, etc.

For the most part, this book did exactly what it was designed to do. It painted the history of fashion in very broad strokes so that we were able to identify areas in which we would like to dig deeper. For each chapter, Arnold lists possible sources for further reading. Some that seem particularly interesting to our project are:

  • The journal Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture.
  • Paul Jobling, Fashion Spreads: Word and Image in Fashion Photography since 1980
  • Annie Phizacklea, Unpacking the Fashion Industry: Gender, Racism, and Class in Production.
  • Rebecca Arnold, Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the Twentieth Century.
  • Hazel Clark and Eugenia Paulicelli, eds. The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization.

Though the book could only ever deal with any issue on a superficial level, I was able to tease out a few items of interest to the intersection of fashion and emerging media.

On a theoretical level, Arnold’s identification of fashion as cyclical, value-added, performative, and potentially homogenizing (3) has clear parallels with the cycles and anxieties around social media. Similarly, the design of the department store and shopping mall as social spaces makes explicit the social history of fashion. This allows us to draw even stronger connections between fashion and social media such as blogs, twitter accounts, etc. Further, the history of influence and copying (14) aligns with current issues concerning legislation that restricts forms of appropriation. And finally, the role of the designer, which has a dictatorial tendency, brings to mind the way that software and app designers constrict potential operations (12). In neither case is this an explicit plot for dominance, but we must be aware of restriction on, as well as the enabling of, interactions.

A Selfridges's window display

Figure 2. Selfridges’s Window Dressing – July 2010 by Flickr user Jaimelondonboy

Another area of crossover is in terms of technological developments. Hardware developments such as the 1851 invention of the sewing machine have an obvious impact on the production of garments (53). Equally important are technologies of textile production, including chemicals and processes for dying (55). In addition, Arnold’s book makes explicit multiple influences that I had not considered. For example, the need to outfit large military forces in standardized uniforms influenced the production of ready-to-wear garments (52).¬† Another interesting example is that of the development of the plate glass window. The increasing ubiquity of large, clear glass windows facilitated the development of the window display, an art form in and of itself.


I just came across this video by UT Dallas student Djakhangir Zakhidov. His company, STEM Productions, filmed time lapse of a collision between Dallas Art Fair and the Neiman Marcus window display. This project makes literal the window display as art form. Read about the installations and watch his video here. You can follow him on Twitter.


The book also contained a fair amount of relevant information about the history of fashion media. I was surprised to learn that fashion magazines date back to the 1600s (6). Also of interest are the evolving genres of fashion plates and fashion photography (63-66). And finally, the 18th century use of the “grande Pandora” doll to circulate the latest fashions (13) is reminiscent of both fashion media and the use of avatars in digital culture. Overall the book laid some groundwork for many possible topics for us to include here at Fashioning Circuits.

Further Resources:

The Grande Pandora

Early Fashion Magazines

  One Response to “Fashion: A Very Short Introduction by Rebecca Arnold”

  1. Reading about the success of Paul Pioret and Lucile due to their ability to “harness modern advertising and marketing methods” in the early 20th century made me curious about current day fashion houses and how they are using social media to establish an image in the same vein. Diane von Furstenburg and Marc Jacobs seem to be following this concept of transparency in an industry that has typically been for an elite, and closed off to outsiders. Both brands have a very strong online presence including highly interactive websites, Twitter and Facebook accounts. It will be interesting to see if and how new designers and current fashion houses choose to use social media and marketing to reach their intended audience.

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